Inception (UK/US 2010)

(Cobb) Leonardo DiCaprio and Fischer (Cillian Murphy)

I see that Inception is now No 3 on IMDB’s all-time hit list. I guess it is good that the only Summer blockbuster so far this year to offer a story for grown-ups has indeed attracted so many fans. Like everybody else, I’m not sure what all of it meant but I was impressed by the casting, the performances and the production ideas. I could do without about an hour of the action sequences – which I now realise are supposed to represent a videogame (especially the last one in the snow). I’m too old for all that and just get bored. But the ideas behind the film are interesting and for once I’m not pissed off by another poor rip-off of Phil K. Dick. I’ve seen various possible Dick novels/stories mentioned as inspiration with Ubik as frontrunner, though I think that there is another one as well. I’m sure Dick wrote about a drug you could take that had an effect on other people when you dreamed about them – but possibly my brain is frazzled!

There must be so much written about the film already and I don’t want to repeat it all, so I’ll just pull out a few observations, most of which refer to its status as ‘global film’. The first thing I noticed is that we get Ken Watanabe and a Japanese-set sequence and I wondered how deliberate this ploy was from a Warner Bros perspective. A few years ago, Warner Bros after a disappointing Batman pic in Japan started to hold premieres there with Japanese stars like Watanabe.

The film felt ‘not American’ in many ways. Apart from DiCaprio and Gordon-Levitt, the other leading cast members are Canadian, British, Irish, Japanese and French – and Asian-American. The writer-director is British. The locations were all outside the US and the ‘feel’ was ‘international’. So, here’s my first question. Why choose a setting to be Mombasa when you know that you are actually filming in Morocco? Why not just name it as Casablanca or Rabat or Marrakesh? Perhaps because it isn’t meant to be a ‘real’ location? Mombasa is the setting where the South Asian character is introduced – which makes sense because there is an Indian diaspora population in East Africa, but this raises a number of other questions. Why not shoot in India and use one of many Indian actors who could handle a blockbuster shoot? My guess is that Hollywood style shooting is too difficult in interesting Indian city locations (unless it is a Hollywood film directed by Michael Winterbottom or Danny Boyle). And why not an African actor for a Mombasa shoot? Again I’m guessing that the casting director was unaware of African talent – it is certainly there but Hollywood tends to take African-Americans to its productions, often based in South Africa.

I’m not criticising Dileep Rao, the American-Asian actor in Inception (I haven’t seen Avatar, which I think he was in), merely noting that global film production only tends to go so far. I blame CGI and I do rather hanker after the 1950s and 1960s when shoots would move to Kenya for a month or so and show us something of a ‘real location’.

Inception has been released in India. It has been the Number 1 film in the ‘International’ film market (i.e. outside North America) for five weeks now but I wonder how the complex plot goes down in territories like India? The usual film industry assumption is that the Hollywood blockbusters that do well in India are action films with little dialogue or culturally specific knowledge required. Of course, there is a significant slice of the Indian audience that has the same viewing habits as American and European audiences and the reviews in the Indian Press reflect this with a generally high regard for the film. But I did come across one Hyderabadi poster suggesting that half the audience were asleep during the film.

The other interesting aspect of the film’s success is that is a 2D film able to compete with the 3D offerings. On the other hand it is also an IMAX film and I’m wondering what difference it makes to re-imagine the scenes for a much squarer albeit larger image. My own preference is to stay with ‘Scope.


  1. Rona

    I have seen reviews that refer to films as various as Solaris (both versions) and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I really like the reference to Ubik but resist it as that book (which would make a great film as a straight adaptation) covers so much more subversive territory. It made me think how (just like Nolan’s Batman) it is a film that has strongly conservative values at the heart of a narrative that appears innovative as the writing is so brilliantly constructed and the action is so slickly realised. The ‘Fred Astaire’ corridor fight scene seems to be becoming iconic. And weren’t we straight into 1970s James Bond with the ‘level’ set in the snow-capped mountain hideout? Nolan certainly knows his audience, but with its dominance at the world’s box office its reach is (I guess) far wider than young males looking for action films and happy film geeks spotting conscious or (appropriately) unconscious references.
    On the issue of the film as a global film, Knight and Day develops just that point. I went to see it because it couldn’t be as bad as they say. It was – only in the sense that, now something like Inception has been made, which is so clear about its cultural and aesthetic context (video games style and, like The Matrix, setting action within an apparent philosophical debate) it looked so old-fashioned e.g. physical stunts which were CGI aided, but trying to look traditional ‘derring-do’) and a romantic comedy in the central couple. In particular, the use of exotic locations is what Hollywood used to do for that global market where the world was a beautiful backdrop. So is Inception really – with its exotic locations stuffed with dangerous ‘others’ who are mainly expendable? In choosing Mombasa/Morocco is the film really attempting to draw on (or narratively/thematically engaged with) a particular national context – or does it stand as a synecdoche for the ‘not-West’, a place immediately believable as the site for producing the strange potions needed for the plot? Is it as simple as the fact that the film gets we are far more interested in the journey inwards into ourselves – just as stuffed with our self-created adversary ‘others’ – as much as outwards? (And as part of this, is the spinning top just another version of that symbol that defines us as people – the film’s own ‘Rosebud’ moment?)
    Quick aside – great to see (as some reviews have commented) Ellen Page being (as usual) intelligent and fully dressed – and also striking up the most convincing emotional relationship with DiCaprio? Other reviews seemed to find that disappointing…


    • venicelion

      Lots of issues here. I understand the Solaris references but I think that film (at least in the Russian version) was much more unsettling – and literally ‘alien’.

      I think that there is something to explore in the Hollywood notion of ‘global setting’. What I was alluding to was the attempt to make African stories in Africa and transporting the production. I guess I’m mostly thinking about British Cinema and the films made in East Africa in particular such as The African Queen, Simba and the film I’ll post on soon, Sammy Going South. You are right to pull me up and remind me that this isn’t a realist film – in any way. On the other hand it does follow that contemprary trend in which, for various reasons, Morocco is the location for most things ‘other’. I still haven’t got over how Scorsese transformed it into Tibet for Kundun (because he couldn’t shoot under Chinese jurisdiction).

      I absolutely agree about Ellen Page. I’ve been trying to work out why she seems a little odd in the film and I think it’s because she is so ‘non-starry’ and ‘ordinary’ as well as intelligent and sensibly dressed. No matter the fantasy world of the film, I feel like she will get out of it in one piece. Poor DiCaprio – he looks so worn out from all that brow furrowing. Perhaps he needs a rom-com with Ellen Page? Or perhaps not. Is Ellen Page the new Jodie Foster do you think?


  2. nicklacey

    re Ellen Page: I did find her role disappointing (not because she remained fully dressed!) but she was the only female and her function primarily was to nurture Cobb (and, by extension, the others). Page is terrific, a clearly independent and strong persona, but the way the character was written meant, dramatically, she was ‘looking after’ the men.


    • venicelion

      I think this is a ‘no win’ situation for casting female actors. You imply that Page is trapped in a conventional female type as the nurturer. But the problem, surely, is the young men that she finds herself with who are not mature enough for proper emotional relationships? I think you could argue that she is in fact both nurturing and providing the real specialist skills – the Cobb character is amazed to discover how quickly she learns and adapts. Narratives in Hollywood depend so much on flawed male characters that it seems difficult to place sensible intelligent women in decent roles unless they are Sigourney Weaver – and even she had to strip down to battle the alien. I’m sure you’ll agree that it would have been less of a boy’s own adventure with at least one other woman in the group. Perhaps the chemist could have been Michelle Yeoh or any of the older Hong Kong action stars?


  3. nicklacey

    I do agree that it’d’ve been better to have had Michelle Yeoh in the film but she wasn’t. I guess the point of contention is the lack of strong roles for women in Hollywood and so when one comes along it takes on a ‘burden of representation’. She does provide specialist skills but we only see these indirectly – ie we never see her working on them – and I think the reason a woman is cast in the role is to do with the character’s nurturing capabilities. It is ‘no win’ until we get many more films that offer decent roles for women.


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